“Gay and bisexual men have a higher prevalence than heterosexual men [toward eating disorders],” writes Dr. Kathryn Zerbe, an expert on eating disorders and professor at the Oregon Health and Science University, in the New York Times’ Consults health blog. Going further, Zerbe explains, “Gay men do appear to have more eating disorders than straight men, [but] these men do not necessarily want to be feminine. Nor do they seem to have trouble with their masculine role, as they define it. They do, however, desire to be attractive to potential partners and believe that being a particular weight and shape is appealing.” Nothing that Zerbe talks about or writes about here is surprising in the least. Rather, what seems most surprising is that we as gay men tend to play into our own insecurities and suffer thanks to our own peer-enforced obsession with fat.
Growing up fat was an interesting experience, particularly as a gay boy. I remember my mother and I going to JCPenney’s husky department, nervously going through the jeans with the wider legs and crotch, and having to suffer the indignity of my mother forcing two fingers into the waistband of my chosen jeans prior to purchase, ensuring that I “had enough room, dear,” and that my particular affinity for potato chips wouldn’t mean more expense on part of my parents for a bigger size in just a couple of weeks. Moreover, I remember being taunted repeatedly for having a “fat ass,” of crying often by myself as a young man wishing people would like, and of the counterproductive, and obviously clumsy, criticisms of my well-meaning father to “go out and get some fresh air.” In reality, my father was trying to tell me to make healthier choices to be like the other boys, but, as life would have it, I was not like the other boys in a good many ways. These ways included throwing a baseball poorly, disliking the outdoors, and, of course, liking to kiss other boys.
At my fattest (right) , I was 317 pounds. Since this photograph was taken, I gradually lost 142 pounds and have maintained my healthier weight in spite of my personal discomfort and anxiety surrounding food. Because of my lingering anxiety, I still feel the need to say explicitly that I no longer look this way.
At my largest, I was 317 pounds. Years of drinking beer and eating chicken wings, Chinese food, tacos, quesadillas, Whoppers, and french fries ballooned my already large 42 inch waist to a seam bursting 52 inch waist in 2007. On a seeming routine basis, I would starve myself, lose weight rapidly, and gain even more back. Only later did I begin reading more mainstream articles about the defeatist strategy that is fad dieting, but it did not matter even then; starving myself made me feel better about myself. Frankly, it gave me a sense of control over the fact that I could not control whether or not people liked me, whether or not other gay boys found me attractive, whether or not I could take my clothes off and not be utterly disgusted by the body in the mirror. My experience, however, is really quite common in the LGBT community, as I learned through speaking with someone I’ll call “Bill.”
“I have struggled with my weight since I was thirty years old,” Bill tells me. Bill began to gain weight after his twenties and started to notice more mass whenever he looked at himself in the mirror. “As a gay man, I don’t think it has impacted me per se, but I do want to be a twink-like guy. I think I look at myself as I was when I was young and very skinny,” he says when I ask him about his motivation to starve himself, binge, and, inevitably, purge and force himself to throw up the food he just ate.
“I think that I just want to be like others that are skinny. With my bulimia, I have bad tooth enamel, and I’ve started to lose teeth…I feel like I am so fat always and that people don’t like me because I am not attractive to begin with and being fat doesn’t help,” Bill seems to accept as fact, incorrectly, that he is by default unattractive and so being fat just compounds the issue. In reality, Bill is a perfectly attractive, professional gay man. In his head, however, he is disgusting.
“The worst part of this is that it’s all in my head. I have a great sex life. I have no problem getting guys,” he concedes. At this point, I hear my own life being echoed back to me. After all, I’ve never been for want of a sexual partner. In fact, I’ve oftentimes said that, as a white guy with a fat ass, I’m the answer to the question posed by the existence of gay black guys. Notwithstanding this amusing, and in practice entirely accurate, fact, I still feel exactly like Bill does. And, this dissonance, of having a fulfilling sex life but still feeling disgusting and unlovable, is something I experience on a woefully regular basis. Sometimes, I have declined invitations because I just ate as much as I could find and, now as an adult, I refuse to succumb to the purge component I developed in high school and practiced throughout my teenage years. And, rather than go out feeling fat and bloated, I ‘d rather lay in bed, watch television, and go to sleep, depressed and alone.
“The other worst part of having all this bother me so much and making it into such a big deal is that I’m six feet tall and 205 pounds,” Bill seems to try to talk himself into a more rational perception, but he fails with his follow-up, “I want to be 165 pounds.”
But, this isn’t entirely Bill’s fault. And, my issues aren’t entirely my fault, either. As gay men, we obsess about our weight. We regularly delight in a friend’s weight loss, telling him that he looks fantastic. Yet, we don’t take our compliments to their logical implication: if a man losing twenty pounds looks fantastic now, then he did not, at one time twenty pounds heavier, look fantastic. So, as a community, we tend to be putting the loss of fat on a pedestal while demonizing the accumulation of fat, regardless of the reason. For instance, upon starting HIV medications, I gained twenty pounds rapidly to stand at five ten and 190 pounds currently because my body no longer had to fight so hard against HIV. But, I am currently experiencing anxiety about attending an HIV+ men’s social event this weekend because I feel, frankly, disgusting. And, I’ve even put myself on an inevitably meaningless diet just to tighten out my waist.
Why do we experience such anxiety, such self-loathing? Well, we make comments to each other complimenting getting skinny, and we also make bitchy comments to each other about another’s weight. “Girrrrrl, did you see how FAT she’s gotten?” is a typical refrain in any gay bar. And, the biggest secret that any fat person or formerly fat person doesn’t want to tell you is that we fear this almost more than anything in reference to ourselves. In fact, no matter how professional, no matter how successful, no matter how compassionate, sexy, or well-put-together we become as men, we can be utterly and emotionally destroyed by one insult.
And, no matter how many times we claim that being fat is okay (it’s not, both from a standard-level-of-social attractiveness standpoint or a health standpoint), we know deep down that we want to be skinny. And, in Bill’s case and in my case, we’ve engaged in unhealthy activities in the pursuit of attractiveness. For me, after years and years of work toward self acceptance, figuring out what worked, and gradually accepting that I’ll never be truly thin, I’ve been able to be a healthy 165-185 pounds for several years now, and this weight depends on the season, amount of acceptable layers and thus my vigilance against carbohydrate indulgence. Notwithstanding the past few years where I’ve been able to stay at approximately the same weight for the longest period in my life, I still cautiously approach every meal, every snack, and every craving with the memory of the JCPenney’s husky department. It seems that, even as men, we behave, privately, as little boys just hoping we’re going to be asked to join a neighborhood game of dodgeball.
And, you know what happens to the fat kid in dodgeball.
This article first appeared on Josh’s own blog here.
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